Luxembourg - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Luxembourg: the Bradt Guide

Luxembourg’s geography is small and easily definable, but its history is far more complex. The story of the country is linked to a string of European power struggles from the expansion plans of the Habsburgs to the empire building of Napoleon and Hitler. Pretty much everyone who was anyone in Europe has at one time or other attempted to get their hands on this strip of land. The geographical area known as Luxembourg has been added to and had parts chipped off it with every change of  management, although each upheaval has seen its political independence and sense of national identity grow.

Diekirch Museum of Military History Luxembourg by ONTThe Diekirch Museum of Military History is one of the country's finest museums and a great place to learn about the Battle of the Ardennes © ONT

A Grand Duchy

Along with much of western Europe, Luxembourg’s fate following the defeat of Napoleon was decided at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. It was elevated to a Grand Duchy and William I, Prince of Orange-Nassau and King of the Netherlands, became its first grand duke. Its status was complex, however: it was legally independent, and technically only united with the Netherlands because it was the Dutch king’s personal possession – its military importance meant Prussia refused to allow it to be fully integrated into the kingdom. Instead it was included under the German Confederation, which gave the Prussians a legal right to station a military garrison in the capital. This new Luxembourg was also greatly reduced in size, as all its territory east of the Our, Sûre and Moselle rivers was ceded directly to Prussia.

Despite nominal independence, the country suffered because William treated it as a colony, imposing heavy taxes on the population. This prompted most of them to join
the Belgian revolt against Dutch rule in 1830. In October that year, the government of newly formed Belgium declared the Grand Duchy to be part of its land, although William still claimed it as his. The dispute remained unresolved for nine years, until the first Treaty of London reconfirmed the terms of the Congress of Vienna. However, the treaty also split the country in two, making the French-speaking western half part of Belgium (where it remains to this day as the province of Luxembourg), and leaving William only the eastern, Luxembourgish-speaking part.

The loss of so much territory caused severe economic problems. To solve this William negotiated a deal with Prussia, ratified by his son and successor William II in 1842. Luxembourg became part of the Prussian-led Zollverein (Customs Union), and soon reaped the benefits by transforming into an industrial powerhouse. The infrastructure improved immeasurably and the first railways were built.

Natural history

Luxembourg enjoys one of the highest proportions of woodland cover in western Europe, in an even mixture of deciduous and coniferous strands. The largest tracts of forest are in the Ardennes region – although most of these are now fragmented and have been modified to some degree. True wilderness no longer exists, as centuries of farming have altered the appearance of the land. Nevertheless, several areas have been afforded special protected status to preserve what remains for future generations, in particular the natural parks of the Our and the Upper Sûre.

In total some 44,000ha is protected – 17% of the whole country. Sightings of large wild mammals are rare – the wolves that once lived in the forests haven’t been seen in more than a century. Wild boar and deer (red and roe) do still live in the Ardennes, but are shy and retiring and you’re more likely to see them on restaurant menus during the hunting season than you are in their natural environment.

The Ardennes Luxembourg Europe by Office of National TourismThe Ardennes rural world of gently rolling plateaux covered in farmland, cut by deep valleys and the sheer slopes on either side are covered with dense forest © ONT

Birdwatchers on the other hand have far more to cheer about. A walk in the woods on most days will find buzzards, yellowhammers, chaffinches, treecreepers, woodpeckers, and more. Kingfishers frequent the many rivers, and wagtails seem to be common just about everywhere. In springtime swifts and martins gather in every town centre to nest, sometimes in huge numbers.

Even Luxembourg City can be a haven for wildlife-spotters. It lies on the spring and autumn migration route of the common crane (Grus grus), which flies overhead as it moves to and fro between summer breeding grounds in northern Europe and winter habitats in Spain and north Africa. Sometimes the cranes pass by in thousands, creating a marvellous spectacle. Peregrine falcons and eagle owls also nest in the craggy rocks around the Bock promontory, and can occasionally be seen hunting from there. 

People and culture

The population of Luxembourg is around 540,000 (2014 estimate), with the majority living in the south. Luxembourg City (103,600) is the country’s sole significant urban area, while only three other towns – Esch-sur-Alzette, Dudelange and Differdange – have more than 10,000 inhabitants.

Like many countries in northern Europe, Luxembourg is an open and tolerant society in which pretty much anything goes – within reason. Crime rates are low, and as a result the atmosphere is generally relaxed. The Luxembourgish people are quietly spoken with a non-confrontational ‘live and let live’ attitude. They will accept almost any behaviour that doesn’t impinge negatively on their own. In other words, ‘respect’ is a massively important byword here. Show the locals due respect and you will find them welcoming and friendly in return.

There is one thing to bear in mind if you want to avoid causing offence in Luxembourg. The royal family are widely revered and command a great deal of respect – most restaurants and shops have photographs of the grand duke and his family adorning their walls. The subject of abolishing the monarchy simply doesn’t come up, and has never been an issue.

Food is another thing close to every local’s heart – particularly at lunchtime, as you’ll learn. When people return from visits abroad the first thing their friends and family usually ask is: ‘What was the weather like?’ But the second question is always: ‘How was the food?’ Perhaps the two most important hours in any local’s day are those that fall between midday and two in the afternoon, and eating well is something that is considered a national obligation, not just a right. If you really want to make friends with a Luxembourger, take them out to lunch.

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